Pixel Qi Out to Bring Principles of Inexpensive Laptop Design to Consumer Market: Former One Laptop CTO Mary Lou Jepsen On Her New Startup

If only laptops could run on qi—the spiritual energy that, in traditional Chinese philosophy, pervades all things.

Well, if anyone has come close to making that happen, it’s Mary Lou Jepsen, founding chief technology officer at the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC). At the foundation, Jepsen did what computer-industry executives said couldn’t be done: design a powerful laptop for children in the developing world that worked on less battery power, and for less money, than anything the major PC manufacturers could create. Last November, the foundation’s neon-green, rabbit-eared XO laptop went into mass production in China. And on New Year’s Day, Jepsen’s long-planned departure from OLPC became official.

But she hasn’t gone far: the next gig for Jepsen, former CTO of Intel’s display division, is Pixel Qi, a Hull, MA-based startup she has created to design and build components for low-cost information devices that could be sold to consumers right here in the United States, as well as to people in the developing world. Jepsen believes that features she pioneered for the XO—such as the integration of the LCD screen and motherboard, allowing the CPU to shut itself down and save energy when little is happening onscreen—would benefit users everywhere, not just in environments where cost is critical or electricity is scarce.

Mary Lou JepsenJepsen says she’s raising financing for the venture now, and that the first products based on the XO’s “holistic” design philosophy could hit stores as early as the end of this year. We caught up with her on last Friday, when she’d just returned from a whirlwind series of meetings with manufacturers at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. She commented on the prospects for a sub-$100 laptop in the near future, as well as the renewed acrimony between her two former employers—OLPC and Intel—over the giant chipmaker’s own attempt to market a low-cost laptop, the Classmate.

Xconomy: You’re starting Pixel Qi to pursue a new mobile-device design philosophy that you pioneered with the XO laptop. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Mary Lou Jepsen: I’m just back from CES, and I found it bewildering. Ninety-nine percent of the products are unnecessary. The iPhone and the iPod have redefined the high end of the consumer market, but nobody is doing that in the mass market.

If you look holistically at a device, whether it’s a cell phone, a laptop, or what have you, you can make products that are just as exciting [as the iPhone] in their own way—things that aren’t just for air-conditioned offices but that work indoors or outdoors, on or off the grid. But they have to be things that people are proud to own and proud to use. I think we accomplished that with the XO.

How will your designs be different?

MLJ: In order to work with economies of scale, we need to design a family of basic components that can be used by a variety of groups—not just children but adults, not just people in poor countries but people in rich countries. Everybody wants their batteries to last longer. Everybody wants to be able to use their cell phone or laptop or Blackberry outside in the sunlight and still be able to see the screen. It’s basic stuff.

Everybody thinks power is about the CPU, but the most expensive and power-hungry component in a laptop isn’t a CPU, it’s … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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